Balancing Open Source and Commercial Interests: Prusa Research’s Licensing Dilemma

By on June 21st, 2023 in Ideas, news

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I finally got around to reading a post by Prusa Research about open source licensing, and have some thoughts.

The piece, which first appeared at the end of March several weeks ago, followed the company’s surprise announcement of the MK4 desktop 3D printer. This long-anticipated device was welcomed by the community, but it was then revealed the licensing was subtly different than prior models.

Prusa Research was based on open source principles, and continues to support those principles today. Unfortunately, they’re finding out that things are not always so rosy in the open source world when it collides with commercialization.

While Prusa Research has provided their plans and software in true open source fashion, it seems the there are many making use of this intellectual property in ways that violate the terms of the OSS licenses.

Josef Prusa listed some the issues they’re encountering:

  • The GNU GPL OSS license, originally designed for software, is really not fit for purpose, and is being interpreted in different ways in different regions
  • There are near-identical copies of the equipment being made and sold — in competition with Prusa Research
  • Software code occasionally has licenses removed when reused by some parties
  • Original OSS code authors are not always being credited when copies are made
  • Some parties using the intellectual property are not contributing back to the projects

And:

“It is suspected that new commercial projects are being created based on open-source projects. However, their code is closed, and they apply for local patents that can eventually be expanded globally.”

These practices are apparently on the rise, and they could jeopardize the business of Prusa Research in the long term.

Consider that Prusa Research must:

  • Develop the designs
  • Build the products (in a high labor rate country)
  • Provide extensive support services

Whereas competitors need only:

  • Build the products (in a low labor rate country)

It’s clear that it will be challenging for Prusa Research to compete in this situation.

Unfortunately, the way licenses are set up there’s not much to stop third parties from making use of the designs. In fact, that’s the intention of open source: making the designs available to all. Even if credits were maintained and licenses included, third parties could still create “clone” machines.

In the software world, this is somewhat less of an issue, but in the hardware world there are physical artifacts being made and sold.

Josef Prusa is concerned about this trajectory, and proposes creating a new type of license to counteract these effects. This new license, suggested by Prusa, could include:

  • If you’re using some code or blueprints to bring software or hardware to market, the original code’s authorship must be clearly stated on the product or in the software. Additionally, deleting copyright information from headers and history from repositories is prohibited.
  • The production of nearly exact 1:1 clones for commercial purposes is not allowed.
  • License for manufacturing spare parts is valid for service, modification, or educational purposes.
  • Upgrades and additional modifications based on original parts are allowed and welcome.
  • Parts that can be considered consumables (e.g., thermistors, heater blocks, fans, printing plates, etc.) can be manufactured and sold commercially after the verification by the licensor based on the presentation of samples.
  • If a product is labeled by the manufacturer as obsolete (or cannot be purchased or ordered for longer than 3 months), the non-commercial clause is automatically terminated if identical parts are no longer produced within the successor of the product or cannot be purchased separately.
  • If the licensor ceases its activity, the non-commercial clause is terminated.

Those items would perhaps shore up things a bit for Prusa Research, if participants adhered to license terms, which is of course not guaranteed.

There’s also the matter of prohibiting commercial use of clones. In open source software tools can often be directly used commercially, but any modifications must be publicly distributed along with the original code.

The proposed license terms by Prusa seem to create a world where Prusa Research customers would be able to modify and experiment with their equipment, but not run off with the designs for commercial production. Help users, not companies, evidently.

This may be against open source principles in some ways, and some feel (according to comments on Prusa’s post) that they may be “building a moat” for the company.

There are many reactions, but In a long response post Stargirl Flowers wrote:

“I am absolutely gobsmacked by this statement. I would’ve thought that a company run by someone who literally slaps their name on everything would understand that they aren’t selling printers – they’re selling a brand.

How do you sell an abstract concept like a ‘open source’ brand? Your brand is the combination of your principles, goals, and ideals reified through leadership. You don’t actually sell a brand, you build a community with people who believe in you and share your goals. Your physical goods are a byproduct, a means to an end that exist only to empower the community and further its goals. Adoption is your key metric, not revenue.”

This perhaps hits the issue head on: the worlds of open source and commercial are fundamentally different and when they mix unexpected things happen. A commercial company saying “revenue is not the goal” would in most cases be at least surprising, particularly for their investors.

Prusa Research faces a tricky situation going forward, as these effects will likely increase over time. They are not the first to face this scenario, however, as another large 3D printer manufacturer went through it years ago.

You may remember them: MakerBot.

After several years of struggle with the same issue, MakerBot management caved and sold the company to the much larger Stratasys, whereupon it transformed into a closed-source fully commercial operation.

Will Prusa Research face the same fate? We cannot know at this point, but I’m sure company management is well aware of history.

Via Prusa Research and Thea Codes

By Kerry Stevenson

Kerry Stevenson, aka "General Fabb" has written over 8,000 stories on 3D printing at Fabbaloo since he launched the venture in 2007, with an intention to promote and grow the incredible technology of 3D printing across the world. So far, it seems to be working!

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